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Has America forgotten its heroes?

February 28, 2013 - 20:14 -- Bart G.J. Knols


This week I attended the 79th annual meeting of the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), which was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA.
I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote lecture on the first day of the meeting, with the title 'If Gates gave you 10 million for mosquito research, what would you do with it?'. Steve Mulligan, vice president of the AMCA, in charge of the scientific programme of the meeting asked me to touch on the importance of 'out-of-the-box' science and the need that we have to come forward with radical and transformational new ideas to control vectors of disease.
One of my favorite subjects in that regard is to look at the past. Of where the world already eliminated malaria and what we can learn from this. That 800 million people now live in areas where there used to be malaria, but where people now put their kids to bed without having to worry about it anymore. And, may I humbly add to this: It was done without a vaccine…

Before my talk a brilliant memorial lecture was given by Randy Gaugler, who honored the achievements of Thomas Mulhern, a man who played a major role in shaping mosquito control in the USA (first in New Jersey and later in California). Mulhern was a man who thought practical in everything he did. From developing machinery to make ditches to mosquito traps.
In my own presentation I talked about the elimination of the African malaria mosquito from Brazil, a topic I have written about on MalariaWorld and for the European Journalism Centre. And at some stage I put up the picture of the man behind this campaign in Brazil, Dr. Fred Soper, an American (born in Kansas), the first director of PAHO, and a man with major achievements in mosquito-borne disease control behind his name (he also eliminated malaria from Egypt during WWII)..
But then it happened. I asked the circa 400 delegates of the meeting to raise their hand if they recognized the man on the picture. The result was unbelievable. Only 5, maybe 6 people in this entire audience of mosquito control specialists raised their hand. I was stunned - one of the American heroes in the field of tropical medicine, who died in 1977, apparently has been forgotten, even in his own country. And considering that the average age of the delegates was quite high, I also came to the conclusion that they will never have taught students about Soper during their careers.
If the successes of malaria (vector) elimination have been forgotten (and I am sure that this is not just happening inside the USA, then how can those currently involved in malaria elimination projects make informed decisions?


Submitted by Socrates Litsios (not verified) on

I would have been more surprised if you had had a similar reaction had you shown a picture of Paul Russell. Afterall, Soper is known by his actions more than his writings. Nevertheless, I agree totally with your conclusion. Why there is a reluctance to look to the past is beyond me.